Tender yet troubled, the touch-and-go marriage of American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and Southern belle Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald rocked the Roaring ’20s and well beyond Black Tuesday. Though the two cared deeply for one another, a darkness shrouded their matrimony. Beleaguered by a family history of alcoholism and what he called “a two-cylinder inferiority complex,” Scott drowned his sorrows in spirits while his wife grappled with schizophrenia, checking in and out of Asheville’s Highland Hospital.
Decades later, mental illness continues to define their life narratives, especially Zelda’s. Though known for her cigarette-smoking, gin-drinking socialite persona — the “first American flapper” as described by Scott — she was also a novelist, dancer and artist with extraordinary range. She sketched the Brooklyn Bridge in grays and blues, painted gouaches of the Smoky Mountains and made droll paper dolls for her daughter, Scottie. A Renaissance woman living in her husband’s shadow, Zelda never received the acclaim she deserved.
Celebrate Zelda! seeks to right those wrongs. Now in its third year, and with more events than ever before, the weeklong festival, running Friday, March 9, to Friday, March 16, includes art exhibits, cocktail parties, gaming competitions and more. The brainchild of Jim MacKenzie, the festival honors Zelda’s unfettered lifestyle. (And what better way than with jazz and Prohibition-era martinis?) But something bigger is at work, too, says Lori Greenberg, the event’s co-organizer.
“Seven years ago, I started working with a homeless woman who happened to be an artist. She had pretty much lost everything because of domestic violence,” says Greenberg. Wanting to display the woman’s work, Greenberg contacted several galleries, but no one would take her pieces. Thus, in 2012, Greenberg opened Aurora Studio & Gallery, a creative space for those experiencing mental health issues, addiction and homelessness.
“These individuals have been marginalized in our community,” says Greenberg. “They have seen the revolving door of services.”
A self-described “figurative expressionist painter,” Aurora artist Dawn Eareckson feels a certain kinship with Zelda, whose emotive style spurned her era’s artistic conventions. On Saturday, March 10, at Trackside Studios in the River Arts District, Eareckson will present several pieces inspired by the Jazz Age celebrity. “It Won’t Stop,” for instance, meditates on Zelda’s emotional life in the years preceding her stay at Highland Hospital. Here, Zelda is very much alive — flames radiating from her mouth, eyes an emerald green. “I wanted to portray her vividly, not as a static figure from decades ago,” says Eareckson.
“After” offers less intensity, calling instead to Zelda’s innate joie de vivre. Painted in cool blues and warm burgundies, the flapper rests after an intimate encounter with F. Scott. Belly round and glowing, Zelda is pregnant with what Eareckson describes as her “own creative fire.”
According to Greenberg, it’s not uncommon for artists to experience their first exhibition while at Aurora. “Folks who I work with, for the most part, haven’t had any gallery experiences,” she says, Eareckson included. Though many lack resources to market their work, Greenberg also thinks mental health plays a role. “What makes me both happy and sad is that there’s a beauty, creativity and genius in those struggling with mental illness,” she says. “It just goes unrecognized.”
Asheville psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Johnson will unpack this stigmatization during his discussion, “Highland Hospital: Practices, Treatment and Mental Health,” on Thursday, March 15, at Pack Memorial Library. The first practitioner to join the Celebrate Zelda! festivities, Johnson will take a hard look at early 20th-century intervention plans, discussing treatments like insulin coma therapy, a method where patients are injected with large doses of insulin to induce a coma. Records suggest Zelda was awaiting electroshock therapy, a different but equally disturbing practice, when the Highland Hospital caught fire.
Johnson will also speculate as to what caused Zelda’s gradual decline. Was it genetics? Was it her very public lifestyle? Or maybe the sheer amount of alcohol she and Scott imbibed? (Scott purportedly drank 37 beers on a good day.) “It may have affected her brain,” says Greenberg. “Back then, people drank differently, and alcohol was made differently.”
But Greenberg goes on to suggest that the reason for Zelda’s “crackup,” as some crudely put it, might not matter. “We can’t get into her head,” she says. Nonetheless, Zelda’s psyche has long been up for speculation while male artists like Ernest Hemingway, whose depression and alcoholism drove him to take his own life, receive less scrutiny. “Zelda wasn’t taken seriously because of her health, but also because she was a woman,” Greenberg says.
As such, depictions of Zelda are hit or miss. Eareckson, though, seems to understand her Roaring ’20s muse: “Freewheeling, disaffected, unbridled,” she describes. “A provocative free spirit.”